The NBA is in the midst of a miserable start to the season in terms of television ratings, particularly on a national level where TNT and ESPN have both seen their ratings plummet 19 percent or more over last year’s start to the season.
It is first important to note that this should mean nothing to fans still tuning in, as ratings should only truly matter to executives at NBA, ESPN, TNT, and the various regional networks that broadcast games — the latter are, like most years, seeing a wide variance in ups and downs that, per usual, are indicative of team performance. Still, it is nearly impossible to avoid the ratings discourse, namely because the league itself is seemingly taking it very seriously and is exploring all manner of options to make major changes, such as the much discussed possibility of a midseason tournament that none of the players want.
There are legitimate questions to pose as to how the NBA can do a better job promoting the game and drawing in casual sports fans to watch regular season games, as there are with most every league. (If you’ll recall, the NFL went through a similar ratings panic recently only to see a major turnaround this year with no discernible changes in how they operate.) Having a dominant team serving as the villain, as the Warriors had been, is indeed good for the league. It’s very possible the Lakers or Clippers grow into that role after this year, but there is something to the intrigue created by seeing teams chase a dominant force and, for now, that is missing.
The league should consider all options to try and understand the best ways to get fans to watch games, but as much as we want to point fingers and blame the NBA and its partners for not promoting the game properly, the issue, for the most part, is the choices made for what teams to give the most national TV games this year has backfired tremendously.
The Warriors were given the most major nationally televised games this season (all due respect to NBA TV, but we’re not including them), with 18 ESPN/ABC telecasts and 12 TNT games. The Warriors are, currently, the worst team in the NBA and proved that rather emphatically on Monday night by losing to the Atlanta Hawks, who entered the game on a 10-game losing streak and had the league’s worst net rating, by 25. It was always a risk putting Golden State on that many national TV games with Klay Thompson out and Kevin Durant gone, but no one could have foreseen this kind of disaster with Steph Curry out of the lineup for three-plus months — and they were a very bad team with Curry healthy.
The league also banked on the Pelicans, Nets, and Blazers pretty heavily this season to shine the national spotlight. The Zion Williamson Show was supposed to be a big draw, given that he brought casual eyeballs to regular season college basketball. His absence for the first six weeks of the season has thrust what has basically been the 2017 Lakers into these spots, just without the loyal fan base that’ll watch it no matter what. Brooklyn, meanwhile, was a mess to start the season and Kyrie Irving, their biggest national draw, has been banged up during their recent hot streak. The Blazers, coming off a Western Conference Finals appearance, have also been heavily featured on national TV as they’ve sputtered out of the gates to a dismal start to the season.
If the NBA could go back in time and tell themselves how those teams would start the season, I bet they’d love to have a mulligan. The idea entering this season was that there would intrigue all over the NBA, but they simply chose the wrong horses to ride early on and there wasn’t really any way to see it coming — although, again, probably loaded up on too many Warriors games, but with the expectation of the return of MVP Steph, it was understandable. Of the 33 national TV games this season, 21 have had teams without a star caliber player.
There will be endless discussion of what the league can do to fix ratings and the end result might be sweeping changes to the season’s format and a tournament no one really seems to want, but the biggest change that would help ratings the most would be opening up the flex options for national TV games much earlier to allow ESPN and TNT to pick better games earlier in the season if things go off the rails for a few of the expected national TV workhorses like this year.
So far, the Pelicans have been on three of TNT’s 12 broadcasts this year (and will play again on TNT on Tuesday night), and in total, there have been two games played between current playoff teams out of those 12 broadcasts — Lakers-Clippers, Nets-Nuggets, and Bucks-Rockets. Other than those three games, two of which came in the first week of the season, TNT has not had a matchup between two teams in the top eight of their respective conferences in the current standings. That seems impossible given that the TNT spots are supposed to be the marquee games each week, but just like many of us in the media, the league also struggled to figure out who was actually going to be good to start the season when scheduling games.
On ESPN, the story is much the same. Only 10 of their 21 games have featured matchups of current playoff teams, and they have already seen the Warriors play three times in that span — with 15 more to come!
The league is never going to be able to predict injuries, so the only way to avoid situations like this would be to work with networks to have games to be flexed earlier in the season if ratings are this much of a concern. There would be obvious hurdles to this — regional networks don’t like the eyeballs taken away from them for national games and vice versa for the national networks who want exclusivity on their nights. However, when something as dramatic as this dropoff for the Warriors happens, there needs to be an alternative option because right now there is no reprieve in sight for the two networks.
It’ll be interesting to see how things change as the season wears on and, hopefully, some of these stars come back healthy. Zion will be back fairly soon, although he’s still not doing on-court work, and that will surely help in those many Pelicans spotlight games. Curry will eventually return, so some of those late season Warriors games might not be total losses, and if the Blazers figure it out and the Nets come together around Irving, things may very well improve.
Ratings will always be tied to how good — or at the very least how interesting — the teams are that are playing. To start the season there have simply been too many games that haven’t been competitive, mostly through sheer bad luck in scheduling. Hopefully the league doesn’t overreact.